Biopolitics and Its Discontents
There is a specter haunting philosophy in the age of the pandemic: it is the specter of biopolitics. According to the debates surrounding Giorgio Agamben’s in/famous interventions – which, for the most part, conclude that the Italian philosopher has become unhinged – it is a given that to think about our conjuncture we must accept, from the outset, that our situation is predetermined by the overlapping of the biological (the virus, our bodies’ responses to it, the effects and affects of lockdowns, and so on) with the political (the State, its responses to the pandemic, the effects and affects of relevant policies, etc.). According to the blurb of a recent publication, for example, it seeks to address the question of ‘what models and philosophies are needed’ by proposing ‘a new positive biopolitics that recognizes that governance is literally a matter of life and death’.
I appreciate the proposition that philosophers must begin with the material fact of mortality. As the young Karl Marx had it, any philosophy that seeks to impose its preformed ideals on a material actuality is a mere interpretation, an ideology, thoroughly incapable of coming to terms with the peculiarities and particularities of a novel situation, and it is hence to be rejected in the interest of changing the world. If so, was the late Jean-Luc Nancy not right to refute Agamben, and, after evoking Marx, rechristen Corona virus as ‘Communovirus’, a properly positive biopolitical agent that grants us ‘the opportunity to truly experience our community’?
Marx’s polemic against ‘mere interpretation’ was a rejection of the kind of speculative philosophising Agamben may be accused of; but, at the very same time, Marx also rejected the vulgar materialism of those trapped within the knowledge of a given situation. Marx – beginning with a PhD thesis that focused on the inherent atomic activity of matter – insisted that materiality is not fixed, predetermined and reducible to the mere presence of biology and physicality. The material world – be it the natural world, or our socio-economic conditions, or, come to that, our bodies’ responses to a deadly virus – is subject to historical changes, changes which grow out of and in turn transform the very material bases of the world.
It seems to me that the advocates of a ‘positive biopolitics’ are proposing that the pandemic presents us with an opportunity for such a change. They posit, contra the conspiratorial transcendentalism of Agamben, an ethical paradigm based on the scientific knowledge of the immanence of our biological vulnerabilities. But would this ethics too not be an interpretation of our condition, attaching one’s capacity to interact with the world to the topic of one’s responsibilities apropos the Other – e.g. via the motif of wearing masks to prevent infecting or getting infected by anyone outside of one’s household – whilst the world beyond the inter/personal remains entirely, resolutely beyond one’s ability to change it? Is this not the recipe for collective consent to, among other things, the economic system that has made this hitherto grotesquely unequal world even more unequal over the last two years? Has the ‘opportunity’ vaunted by Nancy not been, finally, for an elite caste of pandemic profiteers?
What I’d like our philosophers to do is to resist, à la Marx, subjecting our situation to either an a priori intellectualism or an a posteriori moralism. As I await their delivery of this (excessive?) demand, I look elsewhere for an account of the pandemic that negates the (false) negation of a ‘negative biopolitics’ by a ‘positive biopolitics’. And my gaze is turned towards that zone of cultural production with a rather proud and illustrious – if also at times dubious – tradition of addressing pandemics: horror fiction. I suggest that the great Richard Matheson, in his classic 1954 vampire novel I Am Legend, presents a wonderfully thoughtful imagining of a world changed by an apocalyptic pandemic.
Vampires and the Last Man
Set in the not-too-distant future, I Am Legend is the tale of humanity brought to extinction by a virus that transforms humans into vampires. The sole human survivor, Richard Neville, is self-isolated from the nocturnal hordes of bloodsuckers besieging his fortified suburban home. At the outset of the novel, the dominant conflict seems to be between the healthy human and the sickened monsters. Yet the opposition between them is relative. Both Neville and the vampires are subjectivised by necessity: Neville by the necessity to survive; the vampires by the necessity to drink Neville’s blood. As such, according to Marx’s following definition of freedom, neither of them is free:
Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control instead of being ruled by the blind forces of Nature (829).
Despite their pathological conflict, Neville the unsocialised loner and the irrational, non-producing vampires are both ‘ruled by the blind forces of Nature’. The novel highlights this similarity by showing that Neville’s slaying of vampires during the day is every bit as gruesome as the vampires’ bloodlust at night. But I Am Legend is more than a poststructuralist deconstruction of the opposition between the ‘good’ vampire-hunter and the ‘evil’ vampires. What makes this novel truly striking is that, towards its end, it imagines and presents a new social formation which negates the negation of Neville vs. the vampires.
The new society which emerges out of the ruins of both humanity and the vampires is represented by a woman called Ruth. After eliminating vampires and infiltrating Neville’s abode, she tells him:
We are infected. But you already know that. What you don’t understand yet is that we’re going to stay alive. We’ve found a way to do that and we’re going to set up society again slowly but surely. We’re going to do away with all those wretched creatures whom death has cheated. And, even though I pray otherwise, we may decide to kill you and those like you (Matheson 144).
The new society of those that are neither-human-nor-vampire – or those who are neither for or against the biopolitical – strikes me as precisely how Marx characterises the realm of freedom. According to Ruth, the collective subjectivity of this incipient post-pandemic society –designated by a plural subject, a we, who is becoming ‘well organized’ (Ibid) – is premised upon a rational regulation with Nature through the production of a pill which is ‘the combination of defibrinated blood and a drug’ (Ibid). This pill is not a mere preventative that seeks to preserve an uninfected human’s health. Indeed, far from being given the pill, Neville is to be publicly executed not only for his past violence but also because his ritualised execution shall mark the end of humanity and the birth of the new society.
The most recent film version of the novel, released immediately before the 2008 global financial crisis, changes this ending by omitting the possibility of the advent of a new society beyond the false contradiction between the human and the vampires, both of whom represent competing agents within a milieu determined by the biopolitics of crises and catastrophes. Here’s hoping that now that a viral pandemic of our own making has devastated our world, we will begin to appreciate the enigmatic, extraordinary conclusion to Matheson’s great novel. (And learn from it?)
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume III. Edited by Friedrich Engels. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. London: Orion, 2010.